Reading, watching or listening to a well-told story about people undergoing trauma or persecution can certainly build compassion.
But just telling the story, no matter how compelling, may still fall short of providing audiences with a visceral glimpse into other people's realities, an understanding of what they're seeing and feeling that's impactful enough to inspire empathy and action.
Youth media: A short video produced by students from BAYCAT about the VR experience
That’s where virtual reality can play an integral role, argue proponents of the technology. Beyond just an immersive experience for gamers or an influential tool for advertisers, VR can be a powerful empathy machine, as this latest Above the Noise video explains.
"I think that we can change minds with this machine,” says video artist Chris Milk, a champion of VR’s potential for spreading empathy and inspiring meaningful change.
In 2014, Milk and his team visited a refugee camp in Jordan and used a 360-degree camera system to capture the day-to-day life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl. The VR experience was later shown to attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. These are people who may never know what it’s like to be in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan, Milk explains in his 2015 TED talk, but who make decisions that ultimately affect millions of people.
“It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I've never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people's perceptions of each other. And that's how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world."
It’s a position that a growing number of humanitarian organizations have begun to adopt as a way of expanding their donor bases. And more social science researchers have also started exploring VR’s potential to actually change the perceptions and behaviors of viewers.
Jeremy Bailenson, who heads the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory at Stanford University, has explored the issue in depth for more than a decade, conducting tests that enable viewers to, among other things, look into virtual mirrors and to see themselves reflected as members of different races, ages and physical abilities.
His work has shown that VR can trick the senses and give users the ability to identify with completely different types of people. The process, he argues, can be impactful enough to alter users’ beliefs and behavior, at least in the short run and potentially longer.
Not surprisingly, though, there are many skeptics of VR’s transformative power, and some have expressed concern with the technology’s potential to be used more as machine to manipulate viewers into believing or buying things, rather than a benign mechanism to spread truth and empathy and encourage acts of compassion.
“VR is far from the moral game changer that some make it out to be,” insists Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University. In an article for the Atlantic, Bloom argues that VR “doesn’t actually help you appreciate what it’s like to be a refugee, homeless or disabled. In fact, it can be dangerously misleading.”
He argues that these VR experiences do a good job in presenting glimpses of the physical environments of the people they focus on, but are largely ineffective at conveying the long-term experiences and psychological impacts of their conditions.
“The awfulness of the refugee experience isn’t about the sights and sounds of a refugee camp. It has more to do with the fear and anxiety of having to escape your country and relocate yourself in a strange land,” he says, noting that when users have control over the duration of the experience and the ability to turn it on and off, the experience becomes fundamentally different.
“It’s not hard to try out certain short-term experiences, such as dealing with a crying baby for a few minutes, sitting alone in a closet, or having strangers gawk at you on the street. But you can’t extrapolate from these to learn what it’s like to be a single parent, a prisoner in solitary confinement, or a famous movie star. You can’t take an event of minutes and hours and generalize to months and years.”